20 January 2005

2. The Final Frontiersman

The second finished book of '05. This one was pretty good. Longer than "Into the Wild," but about a similar subject - the Alaskan outback. "The Final Frontiersman" is about Heimo Korth, a guy who grew up in woodsy Wisconsin and then moved to Alaska.

He does it in stages, failing at first, but slowly keeping at it, gaining skills, wisdom, and friends. Eventually he figures it all out. He does have a few close calls in the beginning, though, nearly killing himself a couple of times. I also wonder if McCandless read this book would he have died in Alaska? This book also illuminates just how much of a joke it was that McCandless thought he was in rugged Alaska. Korth lives above the Arctic Circle, and as they say in the book about 500 times, his closest neighbor is 50 miles away..

The book is not about how a white man does it (look at him go!), ignoring that people have lived above the Arctic Circle for millions of years. It does show pretty good evidence that the US gov't has conspired, by design or by accident, to deprive people the opportunity of "living off the land." In Alaska alone there are various abutting agencies and bureaucarcies who control 100% of the land. None of them allow someone to just simply set up trapping lines or build a cabin. People do it, but they are considered trespassers and have few rights to stay. Amazing. So even if one of the Eskimo or Savoonga islanders wanted to go back to their tribal places, unless they had a cabin before 1974, they are out of luck.

Another interesting part is how both political parties, environmentalists, and pro-oil folks are ruining the Arctic wilderness for types like Heimo Korth. The Republicans want to have no people so they can drill. The Democrats don't want drilling, but want to keep people out to "protect" the animals. Korth traps and hunts sensibly. If he doesn't then he dies. Or at the least, profoundly impacts his life if he overtraps, leaving fewer animals to breed and hunt themselves.

The food descriptions made me want to try some more exotic meats: caribou, bear, moose, beaver tail, etc...

The writing was pretty good, but parts seemed to bog down (or freeze?). I don't really care for psychobabble (Korth moved to the Arctic Circle to get away from an abusive dad). James Campbell, the writer, does steer clear of a lot of Romantic writing about the rugged outdoors. Yes, the Northern Lights are beautiful, but if you are out checking them you better have a shotgun so a bear doesn't kill you. The river is beautiful, but if your canoe tips over, you better get a fire started immediately.

And there are some far-fetched parts of the book where I began to think the Alaskans tried to pull the wool over Campbell's eyes. For example, he talks about "ice bears," bears who wake up early, hungry, and root around looking for whatever food they can find. To help keep themselves warm before spring comes, they roll around in the rivers and the snow until a coat of ice builds up on their fur. The exagerration came when Campbell said, "Worse yet, the ice bears are impervious to bullets."

I recommend it if you are into books about people who live outside the normal definitions, if you wonder what it would be like to live for months at a time with temps very below zero, or you have a hankering for Alaska.

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